No is better than nothing

Sometimes it’s nice to hear no. Too much has been written about writers and rejection letters, or maybe I’ve just started rolling my eyes whenever one of those lists makes the social media rounds. The thing is, if you received a rejection letter, you got closure. That’s nice.

In a decade of selling words, my fastest yes came when I pitched Heeb Magazine on my plan to take back Hitler’s mustache.

“That’s the funniest pitch ever!”

The guy on the other end of the line was an editor from Brooklyn, where hipsters are so numerous that the idea of a man “taking back the ‘stache” can seem both funny and important. The editor had called me about five minutes after I had pressed Send. That was the highpoint of the assignment, which quickly went downhill from there.

I gave myself a Hitler mustache, but it was definitely on the Charlie Chaplin side of evil. Nobody hit me, which my editor was really hoping for. My girlfriend (now my wife) refused to kiss me, which was sort of predictable and altogether awful. I got dirty looks from strangers and I pissed off my mom. It was a 10-day experiment in stunt comedy that never really worked.

So much for a quick yes.

The best results have been when I heard yes after days or weeks of consideration, even though the waiting was agony. Sure, it’s thrilling to hear yes so fast—only killjoys hate instant gratification—but a thoughtful yes really is the answer you want. After that, the next best answer is a timely no.

A quick no is good for your momentum. It’s a kick in the ass to keep going. It’s also closure, psychic permission to move on; even though you don’t really need permission, sometimes you really need permission.

Book publishers are decent at this kind of courtesy. Magazine editors used to be good at it, but the Internet ruined them. Weirdly, online editors are great at the art of the quick no, probably because it’s the only sane way to manage their email. Then there’s Hollywood. Michael Tolkin nailed the town’s aversion to the word no. The yeses that aren’t really yeses and the radio silence can be every bit as maddening as Lyle Lovett chanting “one of us.” (You really should see the movie, if you haven’t).

This isn’t unique to writers, of course. People who ask questions want answers. But usually the questioners don’t wrap their self-worth up in the answer. That’s one of the occupational hazards.

Perversely, one trick to minimizing the damage is to increase the frequency of the questions. As a college buddy used to say, “If you don’t make calls, you don’t make sales.” He was talking about dating, which is as good a metaphor for a writing career as any other. Most of the time you meet someone and it goes absolutely nowhere. Rejection is common and brutal, at least in the early going. But you get over it, then you get used to it. Eventually, you figure out what you want, and you hear yes. Sometimes, usually not.

Mostly, you just grow up. And as you do, you learn to appreciate a prompt no. Because it’s not you, it’s them.

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